Austin’s Epic F1 Weekend With Nicholas Frankl
By Nicholas Frankl
Senior Editor and Motorsports Correspondent
The Auto Channel
WOW – what just happened? Did you see the razzamatazz at the 6th US F1 GP? What a show, what a spectacle, and what a fabulous weekend of world class racing and entertainment. Entertainment – a word that, especially for fans, has been missing in F1 for far, far too long! When I met Sean Bratches at the Palace reception at the Monaco F1 GP in May he made it clear he (and therefore F1) was in the entertainment business – “the best 50 year old start up I’ve ever seen” was his comment on the current Formula One World Championship.
Many of the established F1 establishment, management, journalists, team employees and principals simply didn’t (and still don’t) understand what Liberty Media are all about. But with experienced execs like Carey, Bratches and the very steady and respected hand of Ross Brawn – the perfect man for the job – F1 is really in a new universe. Enter Las Vegas, Indy 500 and Daytona 500 plus good old Americana Michael "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" Buffer introducing all the drivers, an awesome marching band, Justin Timberlake, Stevie Wonder and the world’s fastest man with a green flag plus a green AMG doughnut hot lap with Lewis Hamilton, and what we just witnessed was just the beginning. Hamilton vs. Vettel separated by the FIA World Championship trophy on a packed grid and 200 countries, not to mention new USA fans and attending celebrities, watching with awe.
F1 purist and, quite frankly rather boring, Sebastian Vettel said: "For those who like that sort of thing, it was nice. For me, I don't need it. I'm not a showman. I like to get in the car and drive."
F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn commented: "I'm proud of how the weekend in Austin went. We are doing small things to improve the show and what we did on Sunday worked well, even though you wouldn't do that everywhere. But what is particularly pleasing is that the teams are now seeing what direction we're moving in with Formula 1." Quite right, Ross!
My weekend started with a lift from good pal and Renault F1 factory driver Nico Hulkenberg, as we loaded up the jet at Van Nuys airport with friends and family for the 2.5 hr hop to Austin. He was met at the tarmac by team personnel from Renault / Infiniti heading for a promotional TV shoot for a new ‘hot’ coupe. We were greeted in even greater style as a new brilliant white Cadillac CT6 platinum edition rolled up to the XOJet Challenger 300 on the tarmac. With TACH duties and sponsor party invites all weekend fellow TACH scribes, Andrew and Annabelle “#TeamFrankl”, were on board too and had a ‘full plate of BBQ’ ahead, so to speak.
Old friends in the F1 paddock included Brett Harrelson and his brother Woody, both Texans and who got chance for a hot lap in the two-seater F1 car driven by fellow Hungarian and ex-F1 racer Zsolt Baumgartner. Brett’s a diehard Ferrari fan, but Woody was also blown away by the weekend, fresh atmosphere and fun factor, a far cry from his ‘real’ reason for being in Austin: a movie screening of his latest leading role in “LBJ” an the excellent and insightful new film (opening November 3rd nationwide) directed by Rob Reiner that, fittingly, was screened at the LBJ Presidential Museum at UT.
It wasn’t just the celebrities in the restricted paddock that noticed the difference in ‘tone’ over the weekend: the ordinary fans got a 1,000 horsepower full of adrenaline right down to Verstappen passing Kimi on the last lap for 3rd place. Max is really mad this time, calling one of the stewards “stupid”, which will likely end up with a fine on top of the five second penalty and the ignominious invitation to leave the podium green room and make way for the last World Champion Ferrari driver, Mr. King of Cool Raikkonen to replace him on 3rd spot on the podium. The reality, as Ross Brawn calmly mentioned to me Monday evening, was that racing off the track would not have been possible a few years back with gravel traps etc and therefore no such move would have taken place as turning his Red Bull into a tractor would have rendered it immobile. Good point Ross, but still a tough pill for him and the fans to swallow who, after all, just want to watch close racing with actual on-track hard overtaking. Maybe drivers should be given one off-track maneuver ‘mulligan’ each weekend?? It would be highly amusing to see how they would #daregreatly ….
Certainly the racing was strong, the drivers just love the track, although some complained that the surface is now rather bumpy in places due to subsidence. Importantly the race seems to be secure for the foreseeable future. With F1 switching to ABC / ESPN next year and with less airtime, no pre or post show and the commentary feed coming from Britain’s Channel Four TV, with David Coulthard and Mark Webber hosting it’s crucial for the US audience to build consistency and I see no reason why Austin shouldn’t be a permanent race. Soon-to-be four-time World Champion, and still only 32, Lewis Hamilton was yet again in a class of his own. At this rate and if he stays in F1 for another five years he might even beat Schumacher’s records. His energy and enthusiasm infect the whole paddock and is in stark contrast to many of the more conservative drivers. The more he wins the more fun he has and the more relaxed and therefore seemingly faster he gets as he wasn’t bettered in a single session all weekend. Powerhouse Mercedes wrapped up a well-deserved fourth consecutive World Constructor’s Championship - pace, power and reliability the ‘simple’ key to squashing the competition from Red Bull and Ferrari who fizzled pathetically when it really mattered. Arrivebene is on tenterhooks to see if he receives the “Marchionne chop” as so many have before him. With no imminent replacement in sight I’m not sure it would be helpful although I understand that the atmosphere in the team is very bad right now and the witch hunts have begun.
Mexico city will be hot and high altitude racing at its best. It has established itself as one of the most exciting racing atmospheres in the championship and I’ll be experiencing it for the first time myself come Friday. I expect to be sharing some champagne with Lewis on Sunday night as a new champion is crowned and I don’t expect a retirement announcement any time soon.